Season: Year-round diving
Visibility: usually 20-25m/65-80ft, but sometimes 5-10m/15-35ft)
Water Temperature: 24-28°C/75-82°F, but down to 17-20°C/63-68°F in some areas
Diving: Sharks, Manta Rays, Whale Sharks, Sealions, walls, sea mounts
Willing to share option
Non-diving activities available include BellaVista Cloud Forest Reserve - Ecuador, Napo Wildlife Centre - Ecuador
Positioned on the equator some 1,000 km out into the Pacific Ocean from mainland Ecuador lie the islands known as ‘las islas encantadas’ or ‘the enchanted islands’. Here the very tips of huge underwater volcanoes emerge from the ocean and occupy a unique location. The cold Humboldt current from Antarctica and a warm current that runs southwards from Central America intersect over this thin spot in the crust of the earth that still, from time to time, spurts hot lava. The fusion of these two great currents affords divers the intensely exciting experience of encountering penguins and sealions, that may originally have journeyed north from the ice-filled waters of Antarctica, and also angelfish, Moorish Idols and turtles that are more usually associated with warm, coral seas.
Look out for the weird Red-lipped Batfish with its strange leg-like appendages and its unicorn-like spike and also for tiny brown and orange seahorses hiding amid the corals. Bizarrely-shaped Scalloped Hammerhead sharks school in large numbers, sweeping their wide heads backwards and forwards as they patrol, whilst magnificent Manta Rays, their mouths stretched wide and their cephalic fins braced to channel the water, glide quietly by as they scoop up huge quantities of plankton. Diving in the Galapagos is like taking a journey in a time machine: some of the species seem to have stepped straight from prehistoric times and others appear to be so alien that they could have been created on some far-flung planet.
Above the waves, the stark and beautiful islands of the Galapagos are largely unspoilt by development and are carefully protected as one of the most precious of the world’s natural showpieces. It was here that Charles Darwin formulated his theories on evolution through natural selection about 150 years ago. Thanks to the isolation of the islands the plants and animals that found their way to the Galapagos developed along their own pathways, giving rise to species quite different from their mainland cousins. In the islands’ interiors ancient giant tortoises lumber slowly across the volcanic landscape whilst along the shorelines brightly-coloured Sally Lightfoot crabs dance through the foam. Colonies of Land Iguanas feed on cacti and grasses whilst dark-skinned Marine Iguanas, which can dive down to a depth of 12 metres or more, swim with heads held high above the water or dive to feed on seaweed on the ocean floor.
A check-out dive at North Seymour will get divers used to the currents and thermoclines that can be expected during the course of the week and it may be here that one first encounters an impressive school of hammerheads or the amazing phenomenon of diving with Blue-footed Boobies, gannet-like birds which hit the water like arrows and dive to depth of 5 or 6 metres, leaving a U-shaped trail of bubbles as evidence of their ‘flight’ through the water.
Shearwaters and petrels skim the waves in great numbers at Roca Redonda. Below the water, near the anchorage site, is a shallow reef area and a sheer rock wall, both of which are subject to strong currents and heavy swell. At about 10 metres, active geysers form sheets of bubbles just like those which stream from a diver’s regulator. Barnacles and sponges encrust the warm rocks, so beware of trying to take a hand-hold as the shells are razor sharp! Schools of Yellow-tailed Surgeonfish and King Angelfish are common here where the slope gradually gives way to a volcanic rubble-filled bottom at a depth of about 15 metres. Appearing out of the blue, one or two hammerheads may be joined by more and more until the pack reaches perhaps 60 or 70 in number. These amazing animals, some up to 3 metres in length, frequently swim very close to divers with their scalloped heads sweeping the water as they glide by. Naughty, playful California Sealions (of the Galapagos race) twist and wriggle in the water, their bodies turning and diving with streamlined elegance as if they were made out of rubber. Some less timid individuals may tug on the diver’s fins or even grasp at a snorkel! The rocks here are plastered with large sharp barnacles and gloves must be worn to protect the hands.
Crossing the equator to the southern hemisphere, we come to the thrilling dive site of Cabo Marshall on the north-east coast of Isabela, which is famous for its encounters with Manta Rays. Here in the strong currents can be found huge schools of the endemic Black-stripped Salema, White-tip Reef Sharks, Galapagos Sharks and a variety of rays, eels and large groupers.
At Cousin Rock off the east coast of James Island a series of rocky ledges like giant steps are packed with colourful starfish and other invertebrates. A host of reef fish make their homes amongst the profuse growth of Black and Yellow-black Galapagos Corals, while barracudas, creolefish and several species of hawkfish are often found here. It is, however, the exciting selection of larger creatures that are found at this dive site that make it truly memorable. Groups of up to 10 Spotted Eagle Rays glide slowly around, hammerheads often cruise by and Green Turtles, silhouetted against the sun, flap lazily through the water while sealions happily come to play with divers.
One of the finest dive sites to be found around the central islands is Gordon Rocks. Here divers get the unique opportunity of diving within the cone of an old volcano, which once stood proudly above the waves but which over the years has succumbed to the ravages of the wind, rain and sea. Between the two rocks that break the surface are three vertical ridges that come to within 10 to 12 metres of the surface. Marine life abounds and here one can regularly record several species of sharks as well as moray eels, rays, snappers, groupers and large jacks. Turn a corner on these rocks and you are likely to bump into a hammerhead school! Look up and witness the amazing site of a ‘flock’ of Spotted Eagle Rays flying overhead and perhaps blotting out the sunlight! At about 30 metres the centre of the cone is filled with sand which forms the perfect habitat for a colony of garden eels, shyly peeping out and warily observing the passing marine life. Friendly and curious Galapagos Fur Seals are often encountered here.
Without doubt the finest, most thrilling diving is found around the small islands of Wolf and Darwin, two exceptional dive sites to the north of the equator and well away from the usual cruise itineraries. These two sites live up to their reputation of being ‘the’ place for big animal encounters. Perhaps because of the remoteness of the area, the animals here show less fear of divers and several people have reported Galapagos Sharks coming to within one metre. Conditions around these remote uninhabited volcanic rock islands can be very variable and there are sometimes big swells. There is no landing point here and boats must anchor in the open water. Below the water an exciting swell can lift and drop divers up and down the water column by up to 5 metres! At about 20 to 30 metres one can often see clouds of hammerheads passing over. The rocks and crevices hold Green Morays and many poisonous and well-camouflaged scorpionfish. Watch the water here and you may see the steely glint of silver combined with sooty black as this is a famous mating site for jacks. The mating ritual involves the male partner turning virtually black and pairing off with a silver female partner. The fish life is so profuse that many divers describe these dive sites as ‘wall to wall fish’. It is well worth sitting on a rock, or simply holding on, just as a bird-watcher would settle down in a hide, and simply watching as quietly as possible as the waters of the Galapagos reveal their finest show of creatures great and small parading in their thousands. Some of the diving cruises that visit Wolf and Darwin encounter magnificent and awe-inspiring Whale Sharks, an experience of which every diver dreams. Rays, hammerheads, Green Turtles, Hawksbill Turtles – the list is seemingly endless – pass by unafraid of the aliens in their midst. Here too Galapagos Penguins, Flightless Cormorants and boobies can be observed gracefully diving in a habitat which they merely ‘borrow’ in search of food.
Several species of cetaceans can be observed in the waters of Galapagos. Perhaps the most common is the Short-finned Pilot Whale, but Humpback Whales and Sperm Whales are also regularly sighted, particularly to the north and west of Isabela and Fernandina.
Although not particularly difficult, Galapagos offers more challenging diving conditions than the average tropical diving area. Divers should be experienced before exploring this wonderful place. Strong currents, surge and swell can combine with cool waters and occasional spells of poor visibility. Although surface temperatures can reach 27°C in the hottest season (December-March), the presence of thermoclines means that the water at 20 metres is usually considerably cooler and divers are recommended to wear a 5-7 mm wetsuit.
EXPLORING THE ECUADOR MAINLAND
You will need to break your journey to and from Galapagos, so why not take some time to explore beautiful Ecuador itself? Below are just two of the possibilities, one in the Andes and the other in the Amazonian rainforest. Talk to us about all the possibilities.
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